The issue’s validity remains debatable, but in 2K6, hip-hop’s supposedly critical condition was like headline news. Every other underground amateur stepped up to save the day, all while the dirty south laughed from the comfort of their platinum-plaqued living rooms. If you argued against it, you were one of the ones that killed it. If you thought it was true, you were a pessimist, a has-been, or both. From coast to coast, just about everyone had tossed in their two cents before Nas chipped in three, but one thing was for certain: if hip-hop wasn’t immortal, the argument surely was. If anything, 2006 saw hip-hop at its most predictably unpredictable. Jay-Z was pelted with criticism, underground sensation Danger Mouse became household, and Christina Aguilera sold zillions with the same DJ Premier that was supposed to bless the pride of Queens Bridge.

Over the years, the pendulum has progressively swung more and more to the south, and it’s all but fact now that hip-hop’s epicenter lies below the Mason-Dixon. Take that how you want, but Ludacris’ theory is a legitimate one: hip-hop thrives – just in a different locale. The truth is that 2006 was a great year for hip-hop. In the midst of heated debate, awareness was raised. Kanye threw another entertaining fit. Jigga and Nasty shared a recording booth. The effects of Hurricane Katrina continued to bring the south together, and acts like Lupe Fiasco gained mainstream recognition through nothing but positive vibes. Not to mention there were a lot of really good albums.

The music COULD be dead for all I know. Who am I to say what beats sound the purest? How do I know what emcees are saying the most? My opinion’s just as good as yours. What’s dead to you might be at an all-time high to your neighbor, but whether he thinks your favorite CD “killed” rap or not doesn’t matter; in ’06, the fans and spirit of hip-hop were very, very alive.

Honorable Mentions:

* Murs: Murray’s Revenge
* People Under the Stairs: Stepfather
* XV: Complex
* Cut Chemist: The Audience’s Listening
* The Game: Doctor’s Advocate


10. “St. Elsewhere,” Gnarls Barkley.

It almost doesn’t count, but as long as Outkast can still be considered hip-hop I don’t see why Gnarls can’t. More like funked-out gospel-hop than anything else, it’s easily the most interesting journey we’ve taken since “The Love Below.” Overrated? Sure, but only because their previous work is even better. And while Cee-Lo might be trying too hard to fuck with your head, nothing on “St. Elsewhere” feels necessarily pushed. It’s original, fun, and let’s not forget that “Crazy” is the single of the year.

9. “Blue Collar,” Rhymefest.

It’s no wonder someone so closely associated with Kanye West shares the same knack for such fun, insightful music. “Blue Collar” is certainly not the debut that “College Dropout” was, nor is it even “Food & Liquor,” but it is bits and pieces of what made either so great, and a little more proof that Chi-Town is very for real.

8. “Exodus into Unheard Rhythms,” Oh No.

“Exodus Into Unheard Rhythms” is sloppily conceived, barely cohesive, schizophrenically sampled, and everything else that made “The Disrupt” good and much more. One major complaint remains; Oh No’s albums are so varied they might as well be mixtapes; but otherwise, it’s increasingly evident that talent runs in his family like white blood cells. “Exodus” is important for Oh No, not only swiftly besting his debut but solidifying his status as the number two producer at Stones Throw behind brudda Madlib. Exclusively sampled from the works of composer Galt MacDermot, it doesn’t even begin to feel the slightest bit gimmicky, while guest spots from a who’s who of emcees do their part to kill Oh No’s great beats.

7. “The Lil’ Folks,” SumKid.

I had never heard of Sumkid before listening to “The Lil’ Folks” but talent like his is all I need to get excited. I’d give you the story, but if you listen to the album or read the review, you’ll know about as much as I do. Better than all but six for the ’06? The Kid sure is somethin’ fierce.

6. “Food & Liquor,” Lupe Fiasco.

It’s been a quick rise to prominence for Lupe, whose 15 minutes could have started and finished with a guest verse on 2005’s album of the year. Beyond the strength of a catchy skating tune and solid production, “Food & Liquor” was to many just a glimpse of his potential, yet it is beyond anything anyone expected of him one year ago. He already tells an amazing story, but if he got more personal with his raps, he’d border frightening.

5. “Eastern Philosophy,” Apathy.

My labeling of “Eastern Philosophy” as a ‘hip-hop period piece’ has deterred a friend or two, but it’s actually one of the easiest listens of the year. Apathy doesn’t give a formal lesson, but rather takes us on a field trip, effectively recreating the sounds of yore without having to warn you about it. Admit it: you miss when hip-hop was like this, too. Ap was born to spit over the production: hard as granite, gritty as football cleats, and at times as chilling as “The Winter.” The raps make the album complete, even though the concepts are quite elementary. “This is crime – ain’t nobody new to it, everybody bare through it; shit, even Martha Stewart do it.” It’s hardly revolutionary, but hey, it might have been in ’93. Blue Raspberry’s even there. What’s not to love?

4. “Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas.

The Nasir Jones time line might be the most fucked up thing on the planet. However he managed to follow up a timeless classic with seven years of yuck is something many will never forgive him for, but once he rose from the grave he’d been digging since “The Firm,” a collective sigh could be heard rising from the hip-hop community. Since then, it seems like everything he’s done is a real life version of Metroid: picking back up all the pieces he lost in a terrible accident. No, “Hip Hop Is Dead” is not the new “Illmatic,” but it is Nas’ best personal performance in twelve years. His suggested state of crisis might sound like a crock of shit, but the idea that such a legendary figure is this perturbed makes for quality entertainment in itself. But Nas isn’t just pissed off, he’s clearly channeling his energy into his lyrics, and better yet, he’s finally in story-telling mode again. Although many point to Nas’ beat selection as the album’s downfall (our editor not among them), it’s easily arguable that the production, especially with contributions from Kanye and a surprising Will.I.Am, is nearly as good as Nas has had since the good ol’ days. I won’t be the only one to say it on this very website, but if hip-hop IS dead, Nas is among the few who could resurrect it.

3. “Donuts,” J Dilla.

Putting a dead hero’s collection of instrumentals this high is just asking for hate-mail, but it’s not my fault that “Donuts” got more spins than any other record in 2006. Dilla probably couldn’t have left his mark in a better way than 31 fantastic instrumentals, tapping countless genres over an unprecedented range of samples. Most rappers simply couldn’t do these beats justice by virtue of how profoundly obscure, saccharinely soulful and unique they all are – and not because the maker won’t be here to see it. At the time of its release, Dilla was hardly challenged for the title of greatest producer alive, and “Donuts” would have made the list if he was here or not. Inducing just enough head-nodding to push the chills from your spine, it’s pretty clear that Dilla dug deep for his last album – not just in the crates, but surely in his soul.

2. “Mo’ Mega,” Mr. Lif.

In a year that Def Jux was as silent as it’s ever been, it’s only more shocking that “Mo’ Mega” has remained so under-the-radar. In making the most playfully serious album of the year, Lif is sharp as a tack; sarcastic, hilarious, emotional and downright acidic on the mic. Sure, America’s fat and disgusting, but why not poke fun while we sit in shame? “Mo’ Mega” is so extremely personal that it feels like sitting in on eleven different arguments, confessions and conversations. He’s not quite the Lewis Black of rap, but as passionate as he is with his material, the comparison is very easy to make.

1. “Fishscale,” Ghostface Killah.

Ever-rising up from Shaolin’s smoldering ashes, Ghostface Killah continues to make it harder to call anyone else the greatest emcee with a pulse. “Fishscale,” possibly his greatest album yet and the best hip-hop record of 2006, is only more evidence that Tony Starks is the most shortchanged rapper in history. Sure, he’s consistent – I hear that twice a week. But here we are, thirteen years since “36 Chambers,” and he’s the most accomplished emcee of a group talked about in rap circles the same way the Beatles are in Rolling Stone.

Over predictably outstanding production, Ghost is at his most vibrant and vivid, illustrating a world of crime and drug dealing like literally nobody else could. He’s to the point where rhymes can’t just be rhymed anymore; in creating the movie scenes that nearly all the songs are, he whispers, sings, yells, assumes different personalities, and makes the filthiest, most immoral shit sound extremely cool. “Fishscale” is as impressive as it is entertaining, matching each street banger (the Just Blaze-produced “The Champ”) with engrossing narratives (Dilla’s “Beauty Jackson”), and remaining amazingly fresh and gripping throughout.

The Wu is not back, and it won’t be anytime soon. “36 Chambers” was one of those rare strikes of gold that even the RZA couldn’t mastermind twice, and the conflicting schedules of what are now eight individual stars would disallow any kind of chemistry to ever take place again. 2006 saw Ghostface Killah proving once more that he doesn’t care.